I’ve known Danny Neville for almost 10 years and have witnessed a very talented teacher, cook and human being undergo a meaningful and profound life change. Here he is in his own words to tell you about it.
Ignite Change (IC)–Obviously you knew that you were gay long before people in your life did. What was it like knowing you were homosexual but had to keep it a secret? How did your relationship change with this dual identity over time?
Danny Neville (DN)–Like many other people, I knew I was gay in some form or other for a very long time. I also knew that this was not something I could ever let out. From the time I was a young boy, I was aware that some of the thoughts and feelings I had were “wrong” or “unacceptable.” The TV shows I watched, games I played, and choices I made were not the norm for boys of my age. Up until around my mid-20’s I don’t think I really believed that I was keeping a secret from anyone. My feelings of attraction to men were so normal to me that I assumed it was something that all guys experienced but didn’t share openly because it was unacceptable.
As I grew up and experienced life on my own, I slowly realized that I was, in fact, different from most men in my life, and that’s when I began to hide from the truth more actively. I didn’t date (and hadn’t for a long time), I avoided all conversations about sex and relationships, and surrounded myself with people who allowed me to be myself without asking questions that had anything to do with my sexual identity.
Living with the secret of my sexuality was a constant force whirring inside of me, and one that I managed to deal with quite effectively. On the outside I was living my life to the fullest by traveling, enjoying my career, and surrounding myself with amazing friends and family. On the inside, I was constantly testing the waters…monitoring every situation in case it turned in a way that I didn’t want to go, planning exit strategies, avoiding certain topics, situations or people. Keeping the secret began to eat away at my spirit. My energy was divided, almost as if living in a continuous ‘fight or flight’ mode. The guilt of lying to the people I loved was particularly draining.
(IC) What limited you from “coming out” during other times in your life? Did you almost once but then decide not to?
I finally came out when I was 29 years old, but I remember one specific moment that I felt the flood gates crack a year or two earlier. I had admitted to myself that I had some strong feelings for a man in my life, although he never knew about it. I had just seen him for what I thought would be the last time, when I received a letter from a close female friend where she expressed interest in pursuing a relationship with me. I was heartbroken about both situations; by not being able to follow my heart, and for lying to my friend by saying “I’m just not interested” rather than being able to tell her the truth.
This happened at work, and I immediately went to see a close friend. I could feel the tears and pain surfacing and needed to talk. As chance would have it, she was busy with a group of students at that moment, so I sat in the back of her classroom and regained my composure. I think that if my friend had been alone at the time, I wouldn’t have been able to stop myself from telling her everything. Instead, I took strength from being close to her and returned to my empty room where I broke down crying in my classroom supply closet (yes, actually in a closet…), allowing myself that one moment of heartache before burying it all away once again.
(IC) What prompted you to “come out”? Was it an event? A person? Just time?
I think it was all of the above, but the most important catalyst was a person. I fell madly in love with a guy who had become a close friend, and whom I thought also shared the same feelings that I did. In the end, we had a short but intense relationship, after which we were separated by our career choices, and moving to separate continents. Although I was 29 years old at the time, the feelings I had were similar to what I’ve heard described in many teen fiction novels. I will always be grateful to this individual for his friendship, his empathy, and his guiding hand.
(IC) How did you change as a person now that you could be your true self?
The road to personal acceptance was rocky at times. After coming out, I still had a fair bit of work ahead of me. Telling friends and family was one piece, but developing a level of comfort with myself was something more unexpected. As I was coming out, I was in the process of starting a new job in a new country. This allowed me to truly make an attempt at starting fresh. I remember in the first days of orientation we had a new faculty dinner. I had quickly made friends with two amazing women, and one of them asked me if I had a girlfriend. This question, one that would have caused extreme anxiety a year before (and triggered my ‘fight or flight’ mode), I was able to answer honestly. It wasn’t easy for me, but it was so wonderful to be able to say, “No, actually, I’m gay.”
The surprising thing to me at the time was how the conversation flowed completely naturally after that. The Earth did not crumble; the girls did not look at me with disgust and walk away. I told them I was gay and they barely reacted to the news.
Being true to myself has allowed me to live a richer life, sharing more of myself with those I care about. I no longer cower from conversations, filter the events I attend, or make excuses for my behaviors and actions. I have been able to move on with living my life, focusing more time on the things that are important to me than using that energy to hide from…well, from myself.
(IC) What was the hardest thing about the process? What surprised you (positive or negative or both)?
The hardest part was telling my friends and family. I did it all fairly quickly. Within about 3 months of my first gay kiss I had told all of my closest friends and my immediate family. The first person I ‘told’ I didn’t actually say any words. I couldn’t. I was at a wedding reception and asked a close friend to dance. I held her in my arms (probably much tighter than necessary) and cried on her shoulder. She told me that everything was going to be OK and that she knew why I was crying and that she loved me. One down; a million to go.
With each ‘telling’ it became a little easier. Admittedly, each time began with my own tears (for the first little while, anyway). But each time also ended with a huge, tight, loving hug and the most supportive words I could’ve imagined. I guess that’s the part that surprised me the most. This huge secret that I’d kept buried so deep for so long was being met with comments like, “So what?” or “It’s no big deal,” or “You’re still the same person.”
(IC) What are you most proud of? Any thing that you wish you did differently?
I guess I’m most proud of the way I live my life today. I’ve maintained the friendships I had before coming out, and I’ve met a lot of new and wonderful people since. I’ve participated in Pride events, gay sports, and many discussions on what it was like to be a gay kid. I have a beautiful, kind, supportive, and completely amazing partner who I adore. He reminds me everyday that being honest with myself was the most important decision I ever could have made.
As for things that I wish I’d done differently, there aren’t many. I wish I’d been more prepared and levelheaded when I told my parents (I was a blubbering fool, barely able to get the words out). I wish there had been more support networks and gay role models to look up to when I was a kid (growing up, my image of a gay man was certainly not the man I am today).
Some people ask if I wish I’d come out sooner. My answer to that is that I came out when I was ready.
(IC) What would you offer to other people unsure about how to move forward and be their true selves?
My advice is to let your own floodgates open. Start writing down your thoughts and feelings. Say the words out loud to yourself. Talk to a loved one or counselor. At first, you’ll probably notice that you talk or write for what seems like hours. Keeping your emotions buried only lasts for a limited amount of time before things come bubbling to the surface. Letting it out relieves the pressure and allows you the chance to step back and take a look at your life from a different perspective.
Moving forward with your true self is like a puzzle. You have to open the box and dump out all the pieces before you can begin to put it all together.
About Danny Neville
Danny has been an elementary school educator for the past ten years, teaching internationally in Colombia, Egypt, Brazil, and Belgium before returning to Canada this past year. He currently resides in Toronto where he is teaching grade three and very happily living with his partner and best friend, Matthew.